Hiking Mount Rinjani: Sunset, Monkeys, and Altitude Sickness on our first SEA adventure

Most tourists who go to Indonesia head straight for Bali or the Gili Islands to relax, drink cocktails on the beach, and complain about bogan Australians (or be bogan Australians). That was definitely on our itinerary (apart from being bogans), but our first stop in Indonesia was to do one of the things I was looking forward to most on our backpacking trip, so when we touched down in Denpasar we got straight on another flight to the neighbouring island of Lombok to hike Mount Rinjani.

I’m a planner. I love a spreadsheet, browsing google flights and booking.com, and coming up with itineraries. Because accommodation in New Zealand is fairly expensive and somewhat limited in certain areas, we organised everything for our time there in advance, but I agreed with Steve that we should be flexible for our trip to Asia. We had to book our flights from Indonesia to Singapore and Singapore to Thailand ahead in case we were asked at immigration (we weren’t), but apart from that we only booked three nights of accommodation in Sengiggi, a beach town on the coast of Lombok, to get our bearings and organise our tour to hike Rinjani.

I think you used to be able to hike Rinjani solo, but due to a major earthquake decimated the island as well as leaving hikers stranded on the mountain for several days, the government now mandates going with a guide. We found one easily; any tourism office will sell you a package that includes transportation to and from the mountain, your guide and permits, all the equipment and meals you’ll need, and anything else they can convince you to tack on.

Three days after we arrived in Lombok, we white-knuckled the drive from Sengiggi to Senaru at the base of the mountain in the back of a van driven by a man who was constantly on his phone, flying over potholes, careening around corners. Naturally there were no seatbelts. In Senaru, we joined up with our group, led by a guide named Adi and supported by three porters–his uncle and two cousins. There were eight total in our group outside of the guide team, including a Welsh couple, an Australian couple, and an Indonesian/American couple, and we set off around 8:30am to the trailhead.

At the gate of the trail Adi organised our permits and we began our trek. The trail is fairly well-marked and it would probably be pretty simple to follow it on your own, but I could certainly understand why the government would require guides, especially after Adi told us stories about being stuck on the mountain when the earthquake hit. He said he and his tour were trapped for two days before the helicopters could make it up to rescue them and back in the village, his brand new house had been destroyed.

We stopped fairly frequently for breaks as one of the couples in our group was woefully underprepared for the hike–the Indonesian woman and her American partner had decided to do it the night before, after a few drinks, they’d told us. Meanwhile, the porters surged ahead, despite carrying probably 40kg of food and camping equipment each, and wearing flip-flops (or, in the case of one porter, going barefoot after one flip-flop broke early in the hike). At first, I wanted to go faster, but the farther we went, the more grateful I became for the breaks. I get pretty bad altitude sickness, and although Rinjani isn’t ridiculously high (~3700m/~12000ft), the altitude combined with the heat and humidity left me feeling heavy and fatigued.

Still, I soldiered on and in the afternoon we found ourselves exiting the rainforest and reaching the final stretch of the mountain before we reached the crater rim where we would be camping (the last segment of the route, to the summit, is still closed after the earthquake). Here, plant life is sparse but monkeys are plentiful. At the top, the porters had already begun to set up our campsite, along with the porters from several other hiking groups. The mountain wasn’t crowded, three groups for a total of maybe 40 people, and nothing compared to what we’d later experience on Bali, so although it wasn’t a completely idyllic, isolated experience, it was still fine and we enjoyed the company of our group and our guides anyway.

Shortly after we arrived to the top, after I lay down in the tent for a little while to try to fight off the altitude sickness, the sun began to set. If nothing else, that sunset was worth every heavy, trodding step. It was one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen, every shade of fiery orange and blazing red, rich blue and soft pink and vivid yellow. I’ll never forget it.

Once the sun had set, darkness fell quickly, leaving us in pretty much pitch blackness. Adi pointed out a few sites that we could see from our high vantage point–an octopus fishing area on a coastal village, the lights of Sengiggi, Bangsal harbour where most of us would be heading the next day to take the ferry to the Gili Islands. After a surprisingly delicious (given that it was being cooked on top of a mountain) meal of mie goreng, we fell into our tents, exhausted.

Sunrise the next morning wasn’t as impressive as sunset, but still beautiful. We breakfasted on banana pancakes and strong Lombok coffee, and then we were on our way again. Going down the mountain was much faster than coming up, and we reached the trailhead around midday. After thanking and tipping Adi and the porters, the Welsh couple headed off on their scooter while the lunatic driver packed the rest of us into his van to take us back to the coast. The Australians, Steve, and I were all planning to head to Gili Air for some R&R, so we had the driver drop us at a guest house near the harbour so we could take the ferry the next morning. And so our first adventure in Southeast Asia was complete. Next up, to the beach!

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